Thursday, May 16, 2013


Everybody has at least one jinx bird.  Even non-birders have jinx birds, but don't know it, are blissfully unfrustrated by never having to fret over one. 

A major jinx when I was a young birder in southern Ontario was Indigo Bunting.  I finally saw one through the window of a stalled subway train on the Yonge line in the open cut between Summerhill and Rosedale stations.  It was bopping around in Spirea bushes.  High-five mystified fellow-passengers.

Recently it occurred to me that Red Crossbills, Loxia curvirostra,  had become a JB. In Ontario  they weren't an easy get, and I never got one, but no biggie.  Moving out here, I was surprised at first by how similar the common birdfare was--add bushtits, lose a lot of neotropical beauties, otherwise much the same--and didn't expect Red Crossbills to be easy to find.

But they are, in a kind of chancy way.  They're year-round irregulars.  They might show up at any time.  They travel in flocks, apparently by throwing darts at a map.  I worked in a nature facility for 7 years and walked the trails daily and never saw a single one, let alone a flock.  But visiting birders would now and then record them in the sightings book, and  I would hungrily set out to the location of said sighting.  Nothing.  Maybe a stupid towhee.

There have been a lot of Red Crossbills in the Lower Mainland over the past winter and early spring.  I read of sightings in birding sites.  I finally saw a few, not well, a few weeks back, while walking to school.  They were at the top of a pine, and I barely grasped a sense of what they were before they bolted, flew across the road, over the houses and out of sight.  It was nowhere near the victorious sense of "Finally!" that would compare with the TTC Indigo B.  It was more like, that was them, wasn't it?  They looked right, in their distant, barely visible bill-twistiness, and they were making the correct sounds, which I had learned from recordings.  But  I didn't really see them.

But then, yesterday, I did.  I was looking for warblers, and look who popped into view.
Way up high, and silent.  Apologies for the low-quality photos, cropped, hand-held long-lens shots, but hey, revel in my glee.  I saw first through binoculars the peculiar, embarrassed colour, and that weird bill-tip.  Oh heaven. I have finally really met them.  A flock.

Look at that bill.  Twisty.  Crossed.  Mal-occluded. Curvirostral.
And this view. I've never seen an eagle that conveyed such quiet, torsioned confidence.

I had no expectation of extraordinary acrobatic ability.  They were up and down, all over the place.  They seemed to be gnawing galls out of birch leaves.

They are weightless.  They are multi-skilled.  They are Chris Hadfield.  

High-five elderly Chinese lady.


Eskarina said...

A few dozen of them have been frequenting my feeder in Comox for about the past month. At first I didn't know what they were, but that bill is a sure giveaway! They are marvelous little acrobats, reminding me of little parrots. They are also quite trusting, staying at the feeder, in the tree and even feeding on the ground nearby while I tend the garden around them.

Katie (Nature ID) said...

Congrats! I totally know that feeling when everyone and their brother seems to see something and you're running around seeing nothing or somehow wondering if you did actually see them. The CA condors have been my jinx bird. I finally firmly saw a couple back in January and was surprised by my own observations.

Hugh said...

Eskarina, A few dozen? What fun. I wonder what the collective term for crossbills is. A circus?

Katie, Congratulations on seeing them. I think I would still be high-fiving strangers.

Dave Wenning said...

I get them in my yard down here also, but they are rare, so I understand the glee. I have never seen more than a single pair at a time. According to iBird, the collective nouns for Crossbills are a "crookedness" or a "warp." The companion website for iBird is

Hugh said...

Dave, I didn't really expect there to be one, but of the two, I prefer "warp." "Crookedness" would seem to suggest something shady. Thanks for the information.

Kim and Victoria said...

Very nice! We're waiting for orioles to show their face.

Heather said...

Coincidentally, I saw a pair of red crossbills for the first time in many years this spring as well. I live in the Okanagan, so maybe it's not just the Lower Mainland that has had more of them lately? The male I saw was very tame. I was able to walk up to only a few feet away from it while it perched at our bird feeder. Their bills really are strange when you see them up close; I can't quite figure out how they even work.

Hugh said...

Heather, I believe they're nomadic and unpredictable, so I don't know what conclusions can be drawn about this year compared to others. I saw a bunch more yesterday. Maybe I've seen them many times previously(up high, in bad light), and passed them off as house finches or siskins, which, after watching them carefully this week realize they are very different from... I dunno. A great thing about birding is that you're always learning.